This began as a flippant post about Jeffrey Lewis and camcorders and got a bit out of hand. I guess there are things I can’t talk about with music just yet, and though I’m getting close, a different outlet is appropriate. Thankyou for your forbearance.
Those of you who have seen the footage of Max and I pissing ourselves extensively over a barely-amusing visual pun (I edited out about 5 more minutes of speechless laughter than you see in the film, by the way) know that amongst the purchasing decisions I regret over the last few years, camcord does not figure. Whilst camcord was the cheapest ‘good’ video camera on amazon at the time I bought it, and was bought for that exclusive reason, and whilst everything I put on the YouTube channel is rush-edited with terrible, free software, the ability to make stupid videos has brought wholly unexpected new levels of joy to the FaceOmeter project.
Camcord had a baptism of fire – the first thing it got to tape, on the evening of the day it arrived, was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen: Jeff Lewis, Professor Louie, Noah and the Whale (they were good back then) and Young Husband at the Exeter Hall, Oxford. Jeff has been a tremendous influence on me since the early days, and whilst it wasn’t just a great evening because he dedicated a song to me on stage and recorded a video ident for what became the first episode of fOwl, these were wonderful bonuses. When I got home I wrote this about the show, and it’s one of the few old posts from this blog I can read now without cringing.
As the post hints, this was a preposterously strange time in my life. Camcord and Jeff both arrived at the end of October 2007, the month in which it had become very, very clear that there was absolutely no way I should have got in to Oxford. Class discussion was so far above my head that I routinely emerged from seminars sideways, and even informal chats with my colleagues on the course showed them to be almost laughably superior to me. It is a terrible thing to realise that you are only average at doing the things you like.
I just wrote a sentence about how the possibility of my dropping out was a very real one, but although I remember talking to my Dad about it on the phone, I don’t think there was a moment when I really considered going home. There were times when I thought I should – knew, even – but it never reached the level of a serious logistical discussion. Though it might not look it, I am not a quitter by nature. Or rather, I tend to quit pre-emptively by never signing up to do something at which I’m unlikely to succeed. Once there though, I usually tough things out well beyond the point after which most sensible people would cut their losses.
Everything here is traceable to my two most innate qualities: my sense of pride, and my deep love of bathos. ‘Pride’ is often conflated with ‘arrogance’, but that’s not what I mean here – I’m talking more about a web of all-too-easily-affronted codes of honour and dignity which form the unwritten constitution of my super-ego. Deep down I’m very serious about these, although I couldn’t really tell you what they are if asked, or why I’m so serious about them. Perhaps that’s why the bathos is equally important – being able to see, or perhaps even thriving upon, the humour in the failure of such serious and elaborate mechanisms of being.
All of this is drivel, but it may help explain the tone of the post I wrote straight after seeing Jeff that time at the Exeter Hall (here’s the link again). I finish it by inviting Exeter (college, that is), to “bring it on” – a sentiment which has never sounded truly sincere coming out of my mouth, but which I did more or less mean. You see, I learned some very important things around this time – to seek out and take lows as well as highs, to have absolute faith in friends, adventure and good times, to have have a clear idea of what one is fighting for, and why. I’d known some of this for a very long time beforehand (a lot of it is inscribed in the 2005 song ‘Inspiration Everywhere’, which Max and I still play to ourselves sometimes), but Oxford and Jeff Lewis together forced me to realise it as a practical philosophy, and camcord has been there ever since, sporadically, to document its application.
Does it work? Exeter responded to my invitation to “bring it on” by, well, bringing it on. I had a terrible year, suffering a series of pathetic, yet (importantly) amusing failures. But this is also the year of the archway gigs, of Waiting for the Vibe, of the Irritating Maze. It’s the year I read Bleak House in a tree in Angel and Greyhound meadow, the year I played my first paid international show, the year I got to see Christopher Ricks lecture on Robert Graves. I think it says a lot for the ideas which distilled in October 2007 that immediately after the worst part of the whole year – the dreaded final thesis-writing weeks of June 2008, Max and I went on the Pantis tour, comfortably one of our most successful endeavours to date.
Since Pantis – since I left Oxford – things have been perhaps even harder. Although the day-to-day stresses of high-level academic work have been absent, a particularly distasteful cocktail of heartbreak and directionlessness have been keeping me and my newly-kicked self-esteem in a suitably Beckettian hinterland. But again, I’ve been to Spain and Portugal, made a record, discovered Catweazle, and toured with MC Lars. Most importantly, I also did a donut in the parking lot with a fairly large sailing yacht – and there’s no kind of heartbreak or directionlessness that isn’t slightly alleviated by accomplishing that feat, particularly not when they are as bathetic as the kinds that afflicted (and which continue to afflict) me.
The biggest achievement of this non-year is that I’m now back in Oxford. I’m not studying there, but I am living with the guy who (I discovered this after I moved in) put on Jeff Lewis for that gig I’ve been talking about here, and I think that’s pretty symbolic. In a perhaps equally symbolic move, Jeff Lewis returned to Oxford just last week. It was his first gig here since Exeter Hall, and once again I was on the cusp of something. Naturally, he played an incredible show. In fact, my reaction at the time, and for a few days afterwards, was a simple “why do I bother?” – why try to be a songwriter in the face of such unmatchable and (crucial) similarly-directed genius?
The answer, as dimly hinted at by the rising moon over the outdoor stage of the Isis tavern, on which I played an ad-hoc River Rat Pack set at the invitation of Cheka a few days ago, is this: for the same reason that, surrounded by people who run rings around me intellectually, I continue to try to educate myself. Because it isn’t about being the best – it’s about having the appropriate senses with which to detect and understand the worst. And by having bad experiences, the hope is to avoid being a bad person.